Further consideration of Bill, as amended in Committee
Identifying the “owner” of a builder’s skip
Amendment proposed (10 July): 10.—(Mr Chope.)
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Your recollection is impeccable, Mr Deputy Speaker. Although more than two months have elapsed since we last debated the amendments, I do not think that it is necessary for me to remind the House of the issues at stake, given that there are further important matters to discuss.
During the course of the debate, there was considerable discussion regarding which of the commendable amendments in the group we should seek to test the opinion of the House. Having listened to the helpful advice of my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the balance of opinion is that the best choice would be amendment 14, which would provide that people could not be prosecuted for having unlit skips if they had taken reasonable steps to ensure that they were lit. In other words, the amendment would mean that there would have to be a lack of responsibility before a criminal act could be committed. There was acceptance across the House that such an amendment would be reasonable, so while I shall not press amendment 10 to a Division, I will seek the opinion of the House on amendment 14.
Earlier in the debate, we heard the good news that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), on behalf of the promoters of the Bill, will accept amendment 11, which should interest those who think that such occasions are rather a pointless exercise. It is clear that the promoters of this Bill are much more willing to accept amendments than the promoter of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill—the Government. The Government should learn a lesson from how we conduct private business, during which if it is thought that the arguments being made about amendments are reasonable, the amendments are accepted without anyone feeling that they are losing face. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Bill’s promoters on being broad-minded enough to accept not only amendment 11, but amendment 30, which we shall reach in due course. Without further ado, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: 11.—(Mr Chope.)
Builders’ skips: penalty charge provisions
Amendment proposed: 14—(Mr Chope.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Amendment proposed: 20—(Mr Chope.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Charging points for electric vehicles
The amendment relates to part 5 of the Bill, which deals with charging points for electric vehicles. Many moons ago, perhaps even more than two years ago, I was told that the reason the Government were so keen to ensure that the Bill got on the statute book was its provisions on charging points for electric vehicles. The fact that the Bill has been on a very slow curve since is indicative of the many practical problems that are being experienced by people who want to promote electric vehicles and a green economy. That is why the issue of charging points has not been as significant as the Government at one stage thought it would be.
I declare my enthusiasm for the idea that there should be electric vehicles. Obviously, if one has an electric vehicle, one needs to have somewhere to charge it. On the whole, batteries that are long-lasting are heavy and large, so it is much easier if one has a smaller, more efficient unit that can be charged at a charging point.
I was therefore disappointed to see that part 5, which gives powers to London local authorities to
“provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles”,
does not require those local authorities to provide and operate such charging apparatus. What a missed opportunity, one might say. I am not suggesting that local authorities should provide and operate charging apparatus in any place. What I am suggesting in amendments 21 and 22 is that the clause should state that London local authorities “shall”, rather than “may”,
“provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles”
“public off-street car park under the management and control of the authority”.
We know that London local authorities make an enormous amount of money from car parking charges, both for on-street and off-street parking. We also know that off-street car parking charges often discourage shoppers from going to local shopping centres. However, if local authorities believe they can charge a lot for the use of off-street car parks, surely, in a society in which we support the principle of having and promoting the use of electric vehicles, they should be required to provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered vehicles rather than just have the opportunity to do so if they wish to take it up.
My hon. Friend knows I am with him on most of his activities, but does he acknowledge that there is a certain smell of the nanny state in his amendments? Is he suggesting—this seems totally out of character for him—that drivers of non-electric vehicles should in effect subsidise drivers of electric vehicles through car parking charges?
Far from it—I am with my hon. Friend on subsidies. I am suggesting that the cost of charging an electrically powered motor vehicle should be self-financing. Obviously, when someone goes into a public off-street car park and charges their vehicle, they can expect to pay for the parking, the service and the electricity. I am not suggesting that other car park users cross-subsidise those who have chosen to have electric vehicles. Electric vehicle users are already cross-subsidised to an extent because of their different treatment under the vehicle excise duty regime.
I am relieved that my hon. Friend has not gone completely nanny state in his approach. However, his proposal would depend on sufficient demand for electric charging points in such locations. If there was insufficient demand, the drivers of non-electric cars would, in effect, be subsidising the very few drivers of electric cars at the charging points.
My hon. Friend is getting into an interesting argument on which we could have an academic discourse. Obviously, to encourage an embryonic service, we might have to provide it and hope that people start using it. Many years ago, when I was the Minister with responsibility for roads, I was involved in promoting the use of lead-free fuel. It seems amazing, Mr Deputy Speaker that, within our living memory, we moved from full-leaded fuel to the unleaded version. To begin with, relatively few vehicles ran on unleaded petrol. If a pioneer bought a vehicle that used unleaded fuel and there was nowhere to fill it up, it would have been a deterrent to people taking up unleaded vehicles. In the same way, if we want to increase the uptake of electric vehicles, we need to increase the number of places where people who own them can recharge them, so that they do not just leave them with an empty battery in the middle of the highway.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I cannot believe that, when he introduced unleaded fuel, he insisted that every local authority had an unleaded fuel pump outside every available car park. I presume he left it to the private sector to run the show. Why does he believe that we need the state to be involved so heavily in providing charging points?
Order. I recognise that the unleaded debate was such a long time ago that Mr Davies may struggle to remember it, but Mr Chope definitely wants to talk about electric points, and not to get bogged down in leaded or unleaded fuel. I know he dealt with that as a Minister and that he wants to deal only with electric points now—he does not want to upset the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).
Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. As so often, you are spot on in reading the language not necessarily expressed between my hon. Friend and me.
In my hon. Friend’s most recent intervention, he asked why local authorities are being given this responsibility. The Bill does not leave it to the private sector to provide charging points for electric vehicles; it gives powers to London local authorities to provide and operate charging apparatus. In my submission, that is acceptable only if there is a requirement for them to provide that. What is the point of giving them a power without any certainty about whether they will exercise it? My hon. Friend paints a scenario in which the public sector can be kept out of this completely. Indeed, I could support that where there are no public sector London local authority-owned car parks. However, if London local authorities wish to take powers to establish charging points for electric vehicles, my point, and the point of these two amendments, is that they should provide them in all their car parks.
I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I will not mention unleaded fuel again. Coming on to the nitty gritty on electric charging points, as the Bill is currently written it may well still be that the local authority will not get involved and that it will be left to the private sector—there is no requirement. It is only if my hon. Friend’s amendment is accepted that local authorities will be forced to do this, rather than the private sector.
My hon. Friend is making an argument against the whole of part 5. He is basically saying that if we are to have charging points for electric vehicles, it should be left to the market, and that the private sector will come into the market and fill any gaps. I find that to be a persuasive argument.
My counter-argument relates to the provisions in part 5. If London local authorities are to be given powers to set up charging points we should, at the same time, say that they shall set up charging points. Otherwise, we could have a situation where they pick and choose where they think it will be most advantageous for them to set up the charging points, and effectively undermine the potential private sector involvement to which my hon. Friend refers. One consequence of part 5 may well be that in London the private sector will be inhibited from coming forward to provide and operate charging apparatus, because local authorities will be competing unfairly by providing that apparatus in their best positioned off-street public car parks, rather than in all their car parks. That is the point I am trying to make: it should, effectively, be compulsory.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Bill has been progressing through this place for such a long time that the legislative framework against which it was originally drafted has changed substantially? Part 5 may not be necessary, because the Localism Act 2011 allows local authorities to carry out this work.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Perhaps we will hear from the Minister in due course what he thinks is the answer to that issue. The regime being established under part 5 would put London local authorities in a privileged position compared with ordinary private sector operators. Philosophically, my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley and I would say that that was wrong. The counterweight is that if the legislation puts local authorities in a privileged position, additional responsibilities should be placed on them in the public interest—namely, to ensure that charging points are available not just in occasional car parks, but in every public off-street car park run by the council.
I accept that, which is why I am disappointed that relatively few spokespersons for London local authority taxpayers are present in the Chamber. There is a lot in this Bill that could ultimately result in additional costs for London local authority taxpayers, mainly through council tax. As somebody who represents a constituency outside London, all I can do is share my hon. Friend’s concern about that. Indeed, we are doing a public service in raising the issue, although it does not seem to have yet reached the ears of people across London, who are normally very concerned about whether they are getting value for money for their council tax.
My hon. Friend says that this is a matter only for London, but it is not, because if the strategy goes hopelessly wrong, London local authorities or the Mayor of London might at some point look to the Government to bail them out. That is why we all need to be aware of this issue on behalf of taxpayers in our constituencies.
Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my advice and help. We are discussing the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill, and I do not want to get into a national debate. As much as Mr Nuttall is trying to tempt you, Mr Chope—he is very good at tempting Members away—I know that you do not want to be distracted from the amendments before us.
Thank you for that ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. Obviously it means that when the Minister responds, he should address his remarks to the issue of charging points for electric vehicles in London, without straying into whether there should be charging points for electric vehicles beyond London. I am glad that you have effectively given him that warning in advance of him making his contribution, and I am sorry if I was going to lead him down the wrong path.
The Government have set out their position in “Driving the Future Today”, as published by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, which has been given money to provide such points. My concern is that if my hon. Friend’s amendments are accepted, that could lead to the national budget for this issue being used up.
Order. I know that you wanted to make a short intervention, Mr Davies, and I know that you may wish to speak later, in which case I would not want you to use your speech up now, but instead to recognise that we need to continue with the amendments before us, rather than causing further distractions.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Amendment 23 would introduce the words “on a discretionary basis” into clause 16, amending the provision that:
“A London authority may grant a person permission to provide or operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles…on any highway for which they are responsible as highway authority.”
That discretion would be necessary as a consequence of amendments 21 and 22 being accepted. Amendments 24 and 25 propose leaving out references to authorised persons, which would result in the London authorities having to exercise the responsibility themselves, rather than through authorised people.
Given the discussion that we have already had about the desirability of the private sector being involved, would not these amendments strike out the opportunity for such involvement by preventing a London authority from allowing the provisions to be operated on its behalf?
Maybe my hon. Friend is right, but my submission is that if the London authority is going to provide charging points, it should do so itself, on its own land. The Bill does not deal with charging points on private land. It deals only with charging points in public off-street car parks that are in the control of the authority, and on any highway for which it is responsible as the highway authority. If someone is going to set up a charging point on a highway, the highway authority should be responsible for it, rather than the person who is setting it up. If anyone wants to set up private off-street charging points for electric vehicles, I would encourage them so to do. They would not need the permission of the local authority to do that. Indeed, they might be able to access the subsidies that were mentioned earlier. Clause 16 allows a London authority to give an “authorised person” permission to set up a charging point on the highway, for which that authority would not be directly responsible.
Well, if that is not sufficient to intimidate me into withdrawing my amendment, I do not know what is! I would certainly not wish to go down any route that could be interpreted, even mistakenly, as enforced nationalisation. I will reflect on my hon. Friend’s point. I look forward to hearing his speech, and I shall perhaps come back to that point when I have the privilege of winding up this short debate.
Amendments 26 and 27 propose leaving out subsections (6) and (7) of clause 16. The effect would be to deal with the issue of liability. One of the privileges that the Bill gives to London local authorities is to exempt them from the common law relating to nuisance on the highway or in public off-street car parks.
It says in subsection 7(b),
“in relation to permissions granted under subsection (2)”,
“is to be taken as imposing on a London authority by whom a permission has been granted any liability for injury, damage or loss resulting from the presence on a highway or public off-street car park of the charging apparatus to which the permission relates”.
What is effectively happening under this provision is that the London local authorities are seeking to say, “Not me, Guv”. If anything goes wrong with the charging apparatus and it results in an accident or in somebody being injured, which would normally lead to a claim for damages against the local authority, that authority is going to be exempt from the consequent liability. I think that puts the local authorities in a privileged position, enabling them to have an unfair competitive advantage compared with other people who are involved in providing charging points for electric vehicles.
Amendment 27 emphasises the same point in respect of paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (7). Paragraph (c) states that nothing in the section
“is to be taken as imposing on a London authority any liability for injury, damage or loss resulting from the presence on a highway or public off-street car park of a connecting cable”.
If somebody puts a connecting cable across the highway or a public off-street car park, but it is not constructed in such a way as not to be an obstruction, resulting in somebody tripping over it and injuring themselves, one would expect that local authority to be liable for the consequences of that action. According to the drafting, however, the London local authority is seeking to absolve itself from liability for people who fall over connecting cables, on the highway or in public off-street car parks, which connect to charging points for electric vehicles. The subsequent paragraph specifies that a London local authority has “the right” to “indemnify” itself
“against any claim in respect of injury, damage or loss arising out of the grant of a permission granted under subsection (2).”
It seems to me that these provisions give to the London local authorities far too many privileges above the law. If they are keen to set up these charging points for electric vehicles, they should, in my submission, also accept the responsibility that goes with that, which is that they should be constructed in a responsible way and should not cause danger to members of the public which can result in injury, damage or loss.
Amendment 28 is designed to leave out subsection (8), which reads:
“For the purposes of determining, in any proceedings in a court of civil jurisdiction, who is liable for injury, damage or loss resulting from the presence on a highway or public off-street car park of a connecting cable at or near charging apparatus…it shall be presumed that the person in charge of the relevant vehicle at the relevant time had responsibility for and control of the cable.”
Why should that presumption be made? Why should it not be a matter of who has responsibility for and control of the cable? That should be the test, rather than making a presumption that the person in charge of the relevant vehicle has the responsibility for and control of the cable. It seems to me that this is another way of introducing a statutory exception that benefits local authorities and overrides the common law of the land.
I am glad to observe that my hon. Friend is back on track with the amendments, because they are faultless. Does he not think it bizarre that a driver who has an accident caused by a cable while he is driving along should be treated as if he were in control of that cable, although he may not have been aware of its existence before the accident?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That brings us back to the question of whom we are trying to encourage to use electric vehicles, and hence to use electric vehicle charging points. If using a charging point can make someone liable at law for events for which that person would not have been responsible but for the provisions of this statute, that in itself will deter people from using electric vehicles. I know of no legislation that provides for someone who fills up his tank at a petrol station to be automatically liable, as the person in charge of the vehicle, irrespective of whether he or she is at fault. I assume that normally, whether the petrol station was owned by a private sector company or by a local authority, its owner would, could or should be responsible.
Important issues of principle underlie these provisions. The danger, as always, is that if they are passed without adverse comment, it will be possible for them to be replicated in other Bills. We have observed that iterative process for many years. Throughout the country, we have encountered more and more—
I shall deal next with amendment 29, Mr Deputy Speaker. It proposes the removal of clause 16(9), which states that in subsection 8,
“’the relevant vehicle’ means the vehicle in respect of which the connecting cable was about to be, was being or had been used for charging”,
“’ªthe relevant time’ means the time when the liability arose.”
That seems to me merely to compound the proposals in subsection 8.
We then arrive at what could be described as a bright dawn. Amendment 30 makes the following proposal:
“Clause 16, page 13, line 15 after ‘cable’, insert
‘or wire which is not provided by the authority’.”
I tabled that amendment because I considered it to be an essential safeguard, spelling out the status of the charging apparatus to which we have been referring, which had not been provided by the authority.
May I anticipate my hon. Friend’s intervention by saying that I am delighted by the broad-minded way in which he has viewed some, if not all, of the amendments? I understand that he is now about to give the House a verdict on the merits, or demerits, of amendment 30.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) may have accepted this amendment, but I am not sure that I shall accept it as easily. May I therefore suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) does not move on quite so quickly, and instead outlines why this is necessary, because I do not see why?
Order. I think we have got the reasons, and I know Mr Chope wants to get on. I have not even had a chance to call other speakers yet. I would be delighted to hear the views of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I will therefore be grateful if you move on through the amendments as you were doing, Mr Chope.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) will be able to make his own speech in due course, and when our friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), replies on behalf of the promoters, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley can intervene on him to ask why he thinks this amendment is so good. That might be the better way of proceeding, because the situation from my point of view is that I thought my amendment was a good idea and now it has been accepted by the promoters, which I think that is a doubly good idea.
Amendment 31 addresses the definition of connecting cable. It is defined in clause 16 as
“any cable or wire, whether provided by the authority or otherwise, used to connect the charging apparatus to a vehicle and that is not permanently attached to the charging apparatus.”
As a consequence of the other amendments, I do not think the definition is sufficient.
That is absolutely right, but in drafting these amendments I had to anticipate the possibility that my earlier amendments would not be accepted by the promoters or the House—after all, it seems that there is even some difficulty in getting my hon. Friend to accept them. I therefore thought, to employ a lawyer’s phrase, that it was probably sensible to plead in the alternative, or move an amendment in the alternative. I agree that it would not be sensible to accept all the amendments en bloc because some of them are in the alternative. That would have to be sorted out if a lot of these amendments were carried or were accepted by the promoters.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you have arrived in the Chair just in time for us to get on to clause 17. It deals with notices to be given before the exercise of powers under section 16. I have tabled some amendments to this clause. Amendment 32 would leave out subsection (2), because that is consistent with the argument I was putting forward earlier that it would not be right to allow authorised persons to be involved in this process. This is therefore a consequential amendment, consequent upon being able to remove references to authorised persons from the Bill.
I follow the logic of that, but it does not necessarily follow. It might be thought that the authorised person does not need first to publish a notice under this section. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to whether the publishing of the notice was relevant in his deliberations?
Clause 17(1) states that
“a London authority shall not exercise any power…unless they have first published a notice under this section.”
[Interruption.] Okay, well that is what clause 17(1) says. Clause 17(2) says “unless the authorised person”—[Interruption.] Yes, but I am seeking to remove authorised persons from this entirely, whether or not they had published notices. That is why this is a consequential amendment, consequent upon the removal of any references to authorised persons. That is because they would not be able to operate this equipment, whether or not they had published any notices under clause 17. That is made clear by subsection (3), which states:
“A London authority or an authorised person, as the case may be, shall publish a notice”.
My amendment 33 seeks to remove the power for an authorised person to publish such a notice. Amendments 34, 35 and 36 make similar amendments, and it is not necessary to repeat the argument in support of them.
I shall now deal with the amendments relating to clause 18, which is entitled:
“Duties to consult or obtain consent of other authorities”.
It is invidious to try to evaluate the significance of one’s amendments, but amendment 37 is significant. Clause 18(1) states:
“A London authority shall not exercise any power conferred by section 16(1) unless they have consulted any authority other than themselves who are a local planning authority, as defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 for the area in which they propose to exercise the power.”
Consulting a planning authority is a very different proposition from obtaining its permission, which is why amendment 37 would replace “consulted” with “obtained the consent of”.
When people are faced with the possibility of having an electric charging point provided by a local authority or a London authority on the highway outside their house, they need to be protected from it being sited in the wrong place or being a health hazard. The local residents look to the local planning authority, in the first place, to try to ensure that those safeguards are available, through the process of needing to obtain planning consent. That involves publishing a notice, giving notice of what is proposed and obtaining the consent of the authority. The Bill states that that would not need to be done and someone could put their charging point on the highway without having to get the permission of the local planning authority.
I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend is saying; it would seem absurd that someone could consult the authority and have it reject the suggestion, yet they would still plough on regardless. Does he understand that this amendment, which I support, highlights the folly of his amendment 21, which sought to force London local authorities to provide these places everywhere? He is making a good point, but it flies in the face of his earlier amendment.
Giving my hon. Friend the benefit of the doubt, my response to his intervention is that that is not necessarily so. This provision presupposes that the London authority, which might be Transport for London, would be providing the charging points and doing so against the wishes of the local planning authority in whose area it was going to put those charging points. That is what I am trying to get at: it is possible that there will be two different authorities. The London authority exercising its power under clause 16(1) is not necessarily the same as the local planning authority as defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
Amendment 38 will leave out subsection (2), which talks about an “authorised person”. The same issue arises about consultation and, as I have already said, I do not think that the powers in the Bill should be extended to authorised people. The same point arises from amendment 39, which will leave out subsection (3).
Last but not least comes amendment 40. Clause 19 creates a new offence of unlawful use of a charging point—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley laughs, and I think that many people coming to the issue for the first time would laugh as well. The clause provides for a new offence—have we not enough offences on the statute book already—and states:
“A person shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale if he uses charging apparatus in contravention of a sign displayed on the apparatus which indicates that…the apparatus is not to be used for any purpose other than charging a vehicle; and…it is an offence to so use the apparatus…A person is not guilty of an offence under subsection (1) if…he had the permission of the person who operated the charging apparatus at the time to use the charging apparatus for the purpose in question”—
although it was a non-authorised purpose—
“he had reasonable cause to believe he had such permission; or…at the time there was on the charging apparatus an indication given by the person who operated the charging apparatus that it could be used for the purpose for which it was used.”
Effectively, the clause creates a new offence of stealing electricity.
My hon. Friend, is the sponsor of the Bill, is nodding. That would be fine if there was not already provision in law to deal with the stealing of electricity, and that is why the provision is completely redundant.
We are creating a separate regime of stealing electricity from a charging point for charging electric vehicles rather than relying on the general statute law on electricity theft. I do not know whether the House is familiar with this, but electricity theft is a big issue. At the beginning of July the energy regulator, Ofgem, said that it wanted more to be done to combat electricity theft. I know that this is not the subject of the Bill, but a third of electricity theft in this country is to power cannabis farms. Nothing is being done about that—it is apparently being ignored—but meanwhile we are trying to bring in draconian measures to deal with people who, in a fit of over-enthusiasm, might abstract some electricity from a charging point.
Surely we should keep the law simple: whether the electricity is from a charging point, from a company or from someone’s own meter through changing the wires or using a device, we should rely on the same law—that is, the Theft Act 1968. The Theft Act provides that it is an offence to steal electricity and there are guidelines about the reasonable penalty to be imposed on people who steal electricity. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East why the promoters of the Bill think that existing laws on electricity theft are inadequate to deal with electricity that is taken from a charging point. Some 25,000 people—quite a lot of people—steal electricity each year, and such theft costs each electricity customer the equivalent of £7 a year.
My hon. Friend might well be on to a good point, but we will find out when we hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East on behalf of the Bill’s promoters.
Section 13 of the Theft Act makes abstracting electricity an offence. It is triable in either the magistrates court or the Crown court, and there are Sentencing Council guidelines on the appropriate punishment. Case law suggests that, for a person who installs a device that causes the electricity meter in their home to give a false reading, a sentence of one month’s immediate imprisonment might be appropriate. I tabled amendment 40 because I was worried that the clause would be another example of putting a further small offence on the statute book and complicating the criminal law, instead of relying on basic law, which is that someone who steals electricity—who takes it dishonestly and without authority—is committing an offence under section 13 of the 1968 Act.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but is not clause 19 also deficient by focusing in subsection (2) on the fact that someone would be not guilty if
“he had the permission of the person who operated the charging apparatus”?
Surely we should be focusing on the person who was paying for the charging apparatus, who might not be the same person as the operator.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am grateful to him for citing another reason why the clause is defective. He is making an additional argument in support of amendment 40, given that it would remove clause 19 completely.
I anticipate that my hon. Friend will make a speech, so I shall throw out the invitation that I made in connection with the previous group of amendments. It would not be reasonable to press more than one of the amendments in this group to a Division, so it is important that we listen to hon. Members’ arguments so that we can determine which amendment they think should be put before the House. I shall be interested to hear in due course the views of my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and anybody else, including perhaps the sponsor of the Bill. When he responds to my remarks in relation to the amendments, we will be able to judge which one he thinks is the strongest and the one in respect of which he has the greatest difficulty in putting forward a cogent response.
The issue of charging points for electric vehicles is one that we need to take seriously. The provisions of the Bill could be a precedent that is established across the country. It has taken a long time for the Bill to reach this stage. Bearing in mind that it is Government policy to facilitate the production and use of electric vehicles and to try to make it practical for people who have such vehicles to travel around not just the conurbation but the country, I hope we will hear from the Government on the subject and also from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who I welcome to the debate to speak on behalf of the Opposition. Her predecessor, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), attended the previous debate in his capacity as a Front-Bench spokesman. I was very sorry that he chose to resign his position because he had been a great servant of the House and had contributed well to debates such as this. All I can say to the hon. Lady in anticipating her contribution to the debate is that she has a hard act to follow, but I am sure she will be up to the task.
These issues are important and are worthy of the scrutiny of the House. In due course, if we get the right charging regime for electric vehicles, it may well be that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, start using an electric vehicle in London if you do not already do so, as might I. If we do not have unfair subsidies and an unfair regime for local authorities, organisations such as this Parliament of ours may be able to set up charging points for electric vehicles. Who knows, this could be a very significant debate for the future of green energy in our country.
I hope that after we have heard the debate we will be able to decide whether amendment 21 or some other amendment is the one on which we wish to divide.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I was a little worried when he began. I thought he had been got at by the Whips Office and had been turned into a more left-wing version, but as he got through his speech I realised that the authentic voice of Christchurch was once again being heard.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who does such a great service on private Bills, which the promoters understandably would like to be nodded through in the minimum time. I echo his praise for our hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is not somebody who wants to see legislation nodded through, but engages in the debate and the process. We should commend him for that. Without my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, some rather nasty parts of private Bills would go through without anybody raising an eyebrow. Even if his amendments do not always find favour, it is essential that they are debated and considered, and that people can see their merits or otherwise. I hope that plays its part in making the legislation that goes through this House better than it would otherwise be. So I am grateful to him for the amendments that he tabled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch set me a challenge to give him some guidance as to which amendment I thought was the one that he should press, so I shall try to give—
Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that preamble to the remarks that he is now going to make on the Bill. I just remind him and his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that it is up to the Chair to decide where the votes are, but obviously the hon. Member for Christchurch will need to consider which amendments he wishes to move or, with leave, withdraw. Mr Davies, if you could come to the amendments, rather than the general skills, excellent though they are, of the hon. Member for Christchurch in considering private Bills, I would be grateful.
I, too, am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are of course right, so without further ado I will get straight down to the amendments.
Amendment 21 is one that I cannot possibly support, but I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. I am not entirely sure—perhaps the promoters of the Bill can let us know—but I presume that the Bill, and clause 16 in particular, was introduced to enable the implementation of “An Electric Vehicle Delivery Plan for London”, a document issued by the Mayor in May 2009. I presume that that document was the genesis of the Bill. Clause 16 currently states:
“A London authority may provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles”.
The amendment would make that:
“A London authority shall provide”.
It seems to me that the merits of the amendment, as far as the Bill is concerned, can be determined by asking whether the clause would fulfil the pledge and the ideas behind the Mayor’s document.
The Mayor’s document sets some ambitious targets for the use of electric vehicles. It states that the delivery plan will
“Work with the boroughs and other partners to deliver 25,000 charge points across London by 2015… including a network of fast charge sites—500 on-street, 2,000 in off-street public car parks, station car parks”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East knows much more than I do about the number of these things in London and their geography, so perhaps he can say whether the Bill, as currently drafted, with the word “may”, would deliver the numbers set out in the document, or whether it needs the harsher wording, with “shall”, to hit those targets, because the document seems to be the genesis of the Bill. Having said that, whether we agree with the Mayor’s ambitions is a slightly different matter.
My view, for what it is worth, is that we should not compel London local authorities to provide and operate charging apparatus in every public off-street car park, as amendments 21 and 22 propose. There might be no demand in certain parts of some London boroughs. We might not really want local authorities doing it themselves anyway. Perhaps we would like other people involved in provision, not least to get some competition going. Competition, of course, is the best way to drive down prices. It seems to me that the monopoly my hon. Friend envisages, unusually, would not be in the best interests of the consumer or the taxpayer, who might end up paying unnecessarily to have charging apparatus installed in places where it is not needed and never will be. Putting such apparatus in every public off-street car park under the control of the local authority seems extremely demanding. It is something that I cannot support. I urge my hon. Friend not to press amendments 21 and 22, and on that basis, I could not support amendment 23, as it is consequential to amendments 21 and 22.
Unusually, my hon. Friend and I have got off on a bad footing, and the situation is not particularly helped by amendment 24; we may have started off badly with amendments 21, 22 and 23, but we appear to be going downhill rapidly with amendment 24. It would strike out subsection (2), which allows a London authority to
“grant a person permission to provide or operate charging apparatus”—
in effect, on its behalf. It seems that, strangely, my hon. Friend wants to prevent the local authority from introducing any private enterprise, in effect ensuring that all such things are state owned and run. That is an extraordinary state of affairs to be asked to support.
I am not suggesting what my hon. Friend has just said. I would support him in an aspiration that the number of public off-street car parks under the management and control of local authorities should be significantly reduced by means of being sold by those authorities. My amendment is saying that if car parks are managed and controlled by the local authority, that authority shall set up charging points.
My hon. Friend puts a slightly different complexion on matters, if I understand him correctly; if I have not, he must pull me up. If he is suggesting that the onerous requirement on local authority car parks is to encourage authorities to sell off the car parks so that they do not have to fulfil that requirement, I do at last see what he is driving at. I start to see the merits of his plan. I was not aware of what his real agenda was; it is a “privatisation of car parks” amendment, rather than one about the privatisation of charging apparatus. I will have to rethink my views.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I am on the opposite side of an argument from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I wonder whether I am on the wrong side of the argument. Having the robust support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will reinforce my confidence that I am on the right side.
The desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to use the amendment to force the privatisation of car parks may have merit. If he were back in charge of a local authority, he might decide that that was the best way to go. I am not convinced that other local authorities would take that view, so the provision would end up being an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer. The amendment is therefore not worthy of support, despite his best efforts to rescue support for what might otherwise be thought of as a poor amendment.
I turn back to amendment 24. In effect, preventing local authorities from allowing the private sector to run charging apparatus on their behalf would be a retrograde step. If we are to embark on this project, the merits of the amendments are not necessarily relevant. We have to presume that we are going down this route. If we are, I would like the private sector to be involved; it would have an awful lot to offer and could probably show local authorities how to operate the points better, more efficiently and more cheaply. To prevent the private sector from being involved, as my hon. Friend envisages with amendment 24, is not sensible. I cannot support the amendment.
Amendment 25 is a consequential amendment to amendment 24 that also reinforces it, so if I cannot support amendment 24 I certainly cannot support amendment 25. On that basis—my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—I do not think I can support amendment 26 either. I think that for the first time in my short time in the House I have found that I cannot support the first six amendments tabled by my hon. Friend. I hope that that will never be repeated in future.
On amendment 27, my hon. Friend is back on normal form again, because he is absolutely right about subsection (7). I am not a legal expert, as he is, but it seems to me that in the normal way of things people are responsible for their equipment. The subsection implies that everybody in the whole country, apart from London local authorities, is responsible for any accidents, damage or incidents that happen as a result of their equipment. I am sure that the Government’s view and Parliament’s view is that people should be responsible for their own stuff. It is utterly unacceptable to say that we are going to exempt London local authorities willy-nilly from the normal course of the law. Why on earth we should think that the state should be exempt from all the normal things that apply to everybody else is beyond me. I hope that the promoters of the Bill will reflect on this, because it drives a coach and horses through what we would expect in this country. I certainly encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to pursue amendment 27.
On amendment 28, my hon. Friend is again on to a very good point. In seeking to strike out subsection (8), he focuses on the part where it says that
“it shall be presumed that the person in charge of the relevant vehicle at the relevant time had responsibility for and control of the cable.”
The person in charge at the time may well have control of the cable—it is probably self-evident that if they are using it they have control of it—but to say that they have responsibility for that piece of equipment is a step too far. As my hon. Friend said, we would not expect somebody filling up at a petrol station to take full responsibility for the pumps they were filling up from. I cannot believe that anybody in this House would think that. If people should not take full responsibility for the pumps when they are filling up their car with petrol, why on earth should they take responsibility for the cables when they are charging their car? The same rules should apply. It might be a different form of fuel, but the same principles should apply across the board. Leaving aside control of the cable, it is unacceptable to impose responsibility for it. For that reason alone, I support my hon. Friend in wanting to strike out subsection (8). Of course, if it did not include the words “responsibility for”, I might take a different view, but as it stands it is unacceptable. Subsection (9) relates to the previous subsection, so we do not need to waste much time on that.
I was puzzled by the Bill’s sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, saying that he was willing to accept amendment 30, because it seems to fly in the face of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was trying to achieve with his previous amendments. I understand now, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is throwing in the towel—I certainly hope he is—with regard to amendments 21, 22 and 23. Amendment 30 seems to pre-empt that throwing in of the towel, because it suggests a much more sensible state of affairs whereby my hon. Friend accepts that the private sector could be involved and that the wires it provides should also be covered. For that reason, amendment 30 is sensible and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East accepts it.
We do not need to waste time on amendment 31. Amendment 32 takes us back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the authorised person. As I said earlier, I am for having authorised people other than the local authority, so for that reason amendments 32, 33 and 34 should be discarded.
My hon. Friend, the sponsor of the Bill, is getting ahead of me. He is clearly a much faster reader than I am. He is ahead of the game and is absolutely right that amendments 35 and 36 are also relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is on to a good thing with amendment 37. It seems ridiculous that the only duty in clause 18(1) is to consult. The title of the clause is: “Duties to consult or obtain consent”. Somebody taking a fleeting look at the Bill would think that obtaining consent was an important part of it, but my hon. Friend is right that subsection (1) mentions only consultation, which is not good enough. Consent must be obtained; otherwise it is a potential affront to local democracy. What on earth is the point of consulting if no regard is to be given to the views of the consultation? That would be a pointless exercise. If an authority has decided that it is going ahead with something and then simply goes through the motions, that would be a waste of time.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about the contrast in clause 18 whereby the local planning authority has to be consulted but Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd and London Underground Ltd have to give their consent, so they are being given a privileged, elevated position compared with the local planning authority, to which local residents look for protection against unwanted developments.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One could argue that it should be the other way around: companies such as Network Rail are not accountable to the public in the same way as the planning authority or as responsive to the public mood. Surely we should expect the consent of the relevant local authority to be obtained.
The point is—I am sure we all have examples of this in our constituencies—that the public have completely lost faith in consultations, and this Bill reinforces that. People are conned into thinking that statutory consultations are meaningful and that they matter and will make a difference, only to find that their views are completely ignored and overridden. People lose faith in the whole process and end up not engaging in anything, because they think it is a waste of time.
I am afraid that this clause reinforces something that does a great disservice to our democracy: sham consultations which people go through simply because there is a statutory requirement to do so. Nobody takes notice of them, because the decision has already been made and they are a minor inconvenience. People say, “We’ve got to waste a bit of time on this consultation, go through the motions and look as if we’re doing something,” knowing full well that not a blind bit of notice will be taken of what anybody says. The only thing worse than not consulting people is to consult them and take no notice of them. I say to the sponsor of the Bill that if there is no requirement to take any notice of the consultation, do not have a consultation in the first place. The local authorities should be open and honest about the fact that they do not care what local residents think and plough on with what they are doing, without going through what we all know is an absolute sham which does a great disservice to public life and public bodies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is therefore absolutely right to say through amendment 37 that consent must be obtained to ensure that the process is democratic and locally accountable. I believe that the sponsor of the Bill is, like me, a big fan of the Government’s localism agenda. It seems to me that clause 18(1) flies in the face of localism. If we really believe in localism, we should seek to gain the consent of people as low down the chain as possible and at the most local level. If the sponsor is a supporter of the localism agenda, he should want to ensure not only that local people are consulted, but that their views count. Their decision should be final in matters that affect them. It should not be possible for a much wider and greater London authority, such as Transport for London or whoever it might be, to ride roughshod over those local views.
As a keen supporter of the Government’s localism agenda, I have to support amendment 37. I hope that, on reflection, the sponsor of the Bill will see the merits of that. That would save an awful lot of aggro later down the line. If he wants to see the effective roll-out of electric vehicles and charging points, and all the infrastructure that goes with that, he should realise that it would be done best and probably quickest if it had the consent of the local people who would be affected. The best way to stop such things in their tracks is to create the uproar that occurs when local people see that their views have not been taken into account. That will stop other people going down the same route and will probably end up slowing down the roll-out of these things. I know that his priority in clause 18(1) is to speed up the process and ensure that the roll-out happens as fast as possible, come what may, but I think that it will slow down the process in the long run as people say that they are not satisfied with being consulted and then ignored.
With amendment 38, we are back on to authorised people. Again, that amendment is not something that I can support. The same applies to amendment 39.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made a compelling case for amendment 40, which would leave out clause 19. He can always be relied on in debates such as this to find something that, when put under scrutiny, collapses before our very eyes. If there is one amendment in this group that shows part of the Bill to be utterly ridiculous, it is amendment 40. As he made clear, existing statute suffices. We should not want to add extra offences to the statute book. My understanding is that the Government’s agenda is to remove unnecessary offences from the statute book. Given that my hon. Friend has pointed out how unnecessary this offence is because it is covered elsewhere, this is a perfect example of where the Government can deliver on what they say and strike out an offence before it even comes into effect. I hope that the sponsor of the Bill will support the Government’s agenda of striking out unnecessary offences and show them that he means business.
However, I think that clause 19 is worse than that, as I set out in my intervention. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that we do not need this offence, but some people may still think that we do. Whether or not people think we need the offence, the way in which the clause is drafted makes it a complete nonsense anyway, because it focuses on making somebody not guilty of the offence if they
“had the permission of the person who operated the charging apparatus at the time”.
Who is operating the charging apparatus at the time is neither here nor there when it comes to whether any electricity theft is taking place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has set out. Anybody could be operating the charging apparatus, but it is the person who is paying for the charging apparatus at the time who should give permission. Who is holding the baby or operating the machine at the time is irrelevant; it could be anybody. Therefore, even if an offence is necessary—I am convinced that it is not—the measure gives a get-out-of-jail card to the wrong people on the wrong premise. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, the Bill’s sponsor, thinks about clause 19 logically, he will realise that it is defective, that it will not achieve what he wants it to achieve, and that, at best, he needs to go back to the drawing board, although I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in believing that it should be struck out altogether.
I worry that, if some of my hon. Friend’s amendments on facilitating a speedier roll-out are made, he would end up using up the budget provided by the Government in London and deprive other areas of the country such as Yorkshire of any available funds. In their recent document “Driving the future today: a strategy for ultra low emission vehicles in the UK”, which has only just been published, the Government say that they have funded the Office for Low Emission Vehicles to co-ordinate Government support with
“a provision for £400 million funding to 2015”.
The problem is that if my hon. Friend’s amendments were accepted, the Government funding could be used up quickly in London and there would be little left for elsewhere. On that additional basis, I hope he will reconsider his amendments.
I do not intend to detain the House any longer. In summary, I hope that my hon. Friend thinks again on amendments 21 to 26; that he knocks on the head amendments 32 to 36 and amendments 38 and 39; and that he focuses his and the House’s attention on amendments 27, 28, 37 and 40—amendment 30 has already been accepted—which have an awful lot to commend them. The logic of those amendments is with my hon. Friend, and if he pressed any of them to a Division, I would enthusiastically support them. However, if he sees fit to press the other amendments, and particularly amendment 21, I am afraid that, albeit reluctantly, I would have to part company with him, which is a rare occurrence for me, and support the Bill’s sponsor. I absolutely could not support amendment 21.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for his amendments, his speech and his comprehensive description of the amendments. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for explaining his position on them.
In commencing my response, it is important to note that we are talking about the future of the motor industry in this country. I take the view that within the next couple of years the private vehicle of choice will be the electric car. It is therefore essential that electric charging points are placed around London in appropriate places for people to charge their vehicles—there is currently limited capacity—so that we can encourage people to take up this new form of transport.
Before I respond to the amendments, it is important to note that there are two sets of provisions: one for car parks, which may be operated by the local authority, Transport for London, London Underground and other bodies; and the other for the public highway, where the provision is likely to be, although not exclusively, where meters and so on are currently provided. They will operate in tandem. The point at which the vehicle can be connected to the charging point will be provided, and the issue is then the cable connection between the charging point and the vehicle. Motor manufacturers may come up with different arrangements for that connection and we cannot pre-judge that. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley pointed out that the Mayor of London’s key strategic vision, which I support wholeheartedly, is for the roll-out of electric charging points across London in a big way. I trust that where London leads the rest of the country will follow.
Amendment 21 would require a local authority to provide the charging apparatus in every car park it operates. In London, there are car parks with space for 10 vehicles and some with space for hundreds of vehicles. It should not be the duty of a London authority to have to provide electric charging points at every car park. London authorities are clear that they want to do this—they do not need to be told that they must do so. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw the amendment. How would the proposal work? How many points would have to be provided, and over what time scale? There is an incentive for local authorities to provide charging points in car parks, but to oblige them to do so would lead to the questions: when would it be a requirement to do so, for how many, and who would enforce it?
I think I am with my hon. Friend, broadly. He said he was a big supporter of the Mayor of London’s document, “An Electric Vehicle Delivery Plan for London”. How can he guarantee that its ambitious targets will be hit? The Bill as currently drafted contains no requirement for local authorities to do this; there is only the hope that they will.
I predict that in the coming years petrol stations will provide electric charging points, in addition to petrol. That is not to say that local authorities should not have a duty to consider installing charging points. Local authorities may lead; the private sector might jump ahead of them. That confirms the view that local authorities should not have to provide electric charging points when the private sector has provided them already in petrol stations. Indeed, one frequently finds petrol stations co-located with local authority car parks, for example, so why should the local authority be under an obligation to provide charging points when the private sector is providing them anyway? In my view, the market should take over.
In some car parks across London it would be wholly inappropriate to have charging points, but amendment 22 would require local authorities to provide them, even if they were never used and never appropriate. I cannot describe every single car park in London—however tempting that may be—but that would be the position.
Amendment 23 is another one that is a bit bizarre. It would downgrade the responsibility of local authorities to provide electric charging points on the public highway. The local authority would have a duty to provide electric charging points, but only “on a discretionary basis”. The amendment is badly drafted, and I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch not to press it to a vote for that reason alone.
I completely accept my hon. Friend’s intervention: amendment 23 would relate to the highway. However, if a local authority was not too keen, it could place one charging point somewhere on the public highway in its borough and thereby perform its duty, which would be bizarre. I suggest that amendment 23 is not very sensible.
The thrust of the amendments is to require public authorities to provide charging points; the thrust of the Bill is to allow them to provide charging points if they so wish. That is why I am urging my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch not to press his amendments.
Amendment 24 is particularly pernicious, because it would remove the power of local authorities to get the market—either electricity companies or other third party providers—to install charging points in car parks or on the highway, when that is something we should encourage wholeheartedly. Amendments 25, 26, 32 to 36, 38 and 39 are consequential on amendment 24, so I would urge my hon. Friend to withdraw them en bloc.
Amendment 27 is about local authorities’ liability. If a local authority grants permission to a third party, be it an electricity company or someone in the private sector, it should be the people who have installed the charging point and operated it who take the liability. The effect of the amendment would be to place the liability on to the authority, rather than on to the people who implemented the service. I would urge my hon. Friend not to press that amendment, as the liability should fall on the third party, if that is who is chosen. The other issue is that if a local authority is negligent, it cannot discharge that liability. However, the key point is about the damage and injury caused by the presence of charging apparatus, which would probably be an issue for either the third party or the individual who misused the charging point.
My hon. Friend is making a valiant attempt to justify his argument, but this is a local authority Bill and of course local authorities are going to want legislation to be passed which states that they are not liable for anything. Surely it is the duty of this House to say that that is unacceptable and that if local authorities want to indulge in this kind of activity, they will have to accept that same kind of liability that applies to other people. Parliament cannot allow local authorities to write their own laws, willy-nilly, to exempt themselves from any liabilities.
I accept the principle behind my hon. Friend’s point, but if a local authority is negligent, it cannot discharge that liability. Let us remember that the charging points will be on the public highway and in public car parks. If someone abuses a charging point, that must be their responsibility rather than that of the local authority. Clearly, if something had been incorrectly connected or was dangerous, that would be the responsibility of the local authority, or of the third party operating the facility on its behalf, to fix it, but only if the problem had been caused by the authority’s negligence.
Let us move on to amendment 28. If someone has used their own connecting cable to plug their vehicle into a charging point on a public highway or in a public car park, the local authority should not have to accept any liability. The responsibility should lie with the individual who has plugged in their vehicle. It is an accepted provision for various electrical devices that it is up to the user to accept responsibility for the cable that they are using. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch not to press the amendment. Amendment 29 is consequential on the outcome of amendment 28.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, and his argument would be all very well were it not for the fact that a “connecting cable” is defined in clause 16(11) as being
“any cable or wire, whether provided by the authority or otherwise, used to connect the charging apparatus to a vehicle”.
On that basis, the connecting cable could have been provided by the local authority.
In practice, the motor manufacturers will provide cables to connect their vehicles to the electric charging points. The end of the cable that connects to the charging point will probably be common to all cables, but the end that connects to the car could be different in the case of each make of vehicle. I suggest that local authorities will therefore not provide cables, and that it will be up to the individual car owner to bring the cable with them when they want to charge their vehicle. That is why the amendments are unnecessary.
In some car parks, a local authority might wish to control the process. I do not envisage cables being littered all along the public highway, but local authorities could provide cables in car parks, particularly when there is someone present to ensure that the process is operated properly. It is important to be clear about whose responsibility this would be. Indeed, there could be an issue in civil court proceedings in that regard. Amendment 31 would remove the definition of a connecting cable, which could be dangerous. The term “connecting cable” is clearly defined in the Bill and the amendment is not helpful. I urge my hon. Friend not to press it.
Amendment 37 relates to the way in which permission is given and the consultation that should take place. We are talking about potentially 25,000 of these charging points, to which my hon. Friend has alluded, right across London—and possibly more. The amendment would require planning permission to be given for each of those charging points, at a time when I would suggest that the Government are trying to move away from the whole process of granting planning permission. We are talking about two aspects: one is the public highway; the other is council-operated car parks. Clearly, the only people who would have any concerns about council-operated car parks would be the council and the potential users of the car park. The users will not be consulted—they may use the car park, but would not have any rights over what happens in it—so only the planning authority would be consulted. Under those circumstances, the requirement to obtain planning permission seems like overkill.
Let me explain the other issue—about the public highway—first. If we ended up having to grant planning permission for all the different boxes that are going to placed alongside parking meters on the public highway, it would again lead to complete overkill. What the promoters suggest—and planning authorities in London, by the way, have given their consent to it—is that they are happy to be consulted without having to go through giving full planning permission for this to operate. They are content in that this is London local authorities dealing with London planning authorities—funnily enough, they are the same thing—so in those circumstances, it again seems like overkill.
It is not the local authorities, but local residents, that I care about. My hon. Friend makes great play of how the Bill will be used in practice, but a full planning meeting will not have to be convened for every one of these requests. Rather, this is a safeguard. Most of the consents can be given in a flash by the planning authority—we do not need to go through a full planning meeting for a planning authority to give consent—but ensuring that consent has to be given provides an essential safeguard for the one or two cases that might be contentious in the local community, even though my hon. Friend might not be able to envisage them.
Having served as a councillor on a local authority for 24 years before coming to this place, I can confirm what the position would be, and it would mean the local authority having to give planning permission for every single one of these charging points. A planning application would have to be taken out—at a cost, by the way, to the local council tax payer—and those considering the planning applications would then have to advertise locally and send to every local resident in the immediate area where the charging point was to be sited an invitation to lodge an objection. I suggest that that whole process would be extremely bureaucratic and unnecessary.
In considering implementing the charging points, any local authority worth its salt would consult individual residents as appropriate and advise them through publications or notifications what is going to take place. There would then need to be a process for finding a reasonable mix in respect of where the charging points would be. That would be preferable to requiring full-blown planning permission, which I think would be draconian, would slow the process down considerably and would lead to extremely high costs for the individuals putting in the charging points—costs that are completely unnecessary.
I take my hon. Friend’s point that we do not want to have thousands of planning applications, but is there not a middle way? Could this not be done, for example, through permitted development rights? Putting a charging apparatus on the street could be granted permitted development unless there were objections from neighbours—a form of permitted development similar to what the Government have recently brought in for extensions to domestic houses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. The key here is consulting the planning authorities on their approach to a particular area, but let me come back to the effect of the amendment. It would effectively require the local authority to go through the wholesale planning permission process. On that basis, I urge my hon. Friend not to press the amendment.
Amendment 40 deals with the unlawful use of electric charging points. It should be borne in mind that such charging points will be in car parks run by local authorities, or on the public highway. My hon. Friend said that the issue of electricity theft was behind the amendment, but electricity theft nearly always takes place within the confines of property, and is perpetrated by people who bypass a meter or do something similar. What is needed in this instance is a provision that makes it an offence to interfere with devices that are on the public highway, or to misuse them in any way.
It should be made clear to members of the public that if they interfere with such devices, they will face a penalty in a civil court. I believe that the penalty has been set at level 3, which currently means a fine of up to £1,000. However, I understand that the Ministry of Justice is still consulting on an increase, and that the amount could rise to £4,000. Of course, every case will be judged on its merits, and, were someone convicted of such an offence, it would be up to the court to decide what the penalty should be. That, I think, is wholly appropriate.
The promoters are keen to ensure that there is a designated offence in this regard, and I agree with them. There are to be at least 25,000 charging points in London. Given that local authorities are already experiencing severe problems with thefts from parking meters and similar devices in London, we must make it clear to the public that interfering with charging points could be dangerous. We need a specific deterrent rather than relying on the offence of electricity theft, because interfering with these devices would not just be theft. It could, for instance, be vandalism.
Unfortunately, there is no reference to vandalism in the clause, which refers specifically to someone who
“uses charging apparatus in contravention of a sign”.
Someone who vandalises, abuses or interferes with such apparatus is not using it. My hon. Friend mentioned the problem of theft from parking meters. I imagine that that is dealt with not by a specific offence of stealing from a parking meter, but by the offence of theft. Surely exactly the same principle could apply to the theft of electricity, which is already an offence on the statute book.
I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying his purpose, but I think we should make it clear that misusing a charging point, or using it without appropriate authority, is an offence, and that a penalty will be imposed if someone is convicted of such an offence. That is what the promoters want, and I strongly support it.
I urge my hon. Friend not to press his amendment to a vote. It is clear that the offence of electricity theft would not necessarily cover all aspects of unauthorised use of a charging point. Clause 19 makes that a specific offence, and makes it clear both to members of the public and to the courts what the penalties would be. I think that removing it would constitute a very dangerous precedent, because local authorities would have to use some other part of the law to enforce the rules. Given that there is to be a new basis for the provision and charging of private vehicles, we need sensible measures to deal with unauthorised use of the new devices.
Let me say on behalf of the promoters that we are happy to accept amendment 30. I urge my hon. Friend not to press the remaining amendments, but if he chooses to do so, we will oppose them.
It is, as always, a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I thank him for the good-natured way in which he has steered this Bill through a number of sittings on the Floor of the House, and in particular for the very helpful way he has steered through these amendments, all of which relate to part 5 of the Bill dealing with charging points for electric vehicles. They were so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) at the outset of this brief debate.
This whole issue is important on a variety of levels and for a variety of reasons, but particularly because it addresses a growth area. As my hon. Friend made clear in his opening remarks, this is an area that will receive a great deal of attention in the months and years ahead. The sorts of issues we have debated this evening will be debated at length in the years to come and some of the problems we have identified will be applicable not only to London, but throughout the country, and I regard this Bill as a blueprint for what will follow.
I wonder if it might have been better for this whole issue of charging points for electric vehicles to have been dealt with on a national basis so that we could deal with it across the nation, with a single set of rules and regulations, rather than just dealing with it, as this Bill does, on a piecemeal basis for London alone.
What I call the first sub-group of amendments deals with the provision of charging apparatus within car parks and on the public highway. Essentially, the issue is this: who should have the responsibility for providing these charging points? Should it be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggested, purely the private sector, or should it be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would have it in these amendments, purely the local authorities, or should there be a mix of the two?
If the amendments are agreed to, essentially a monopoly would be created for the London local authorities, in the sense that the permissive nature of clause 16(1) which says they
“may provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles”
would be changed, and the provision would state they “shall” do those things. Under clause 16(1)(a) they would be required to provide those charging points in every single “public off-street car park” and under subsection (b), on a discretionary basis, on the
“highway for which they are responsible as highway authority.”
In my view that goes way too far.
On this amendment and consequential amendments, I am entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the promoters of the Bill in that I think the London local authorities should not be forced to provide these charging points. This part of the Bill is entirely superfluous. Given the Localism Act 2011, I question whether there is a need for specific provisions to give London local authorities the power to provide and operate charging apparatus for electrically powered motor vehicles. Under the general power that all local authorities were granted under that Act, they may already have these powers, should they choose to investigate the matter and make use of them.
This should be left for the market to decide, as was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. We are talking about providing the energy to power vehicles. Nobody has ever suggested that local authorities should be responsible for providing diesel or petrol and setting up their own petrol stations, so why does this Bill contemplate giving them the power to provide charging points for electric vehicles? Why the difference? At the start of the 20th century were our forebears in this place suggesting that the local authorities of the day set up petrol stations for the newly invented combustion engine? I suggest that they were not. On that basis, I am suspicious about amendment 21 and the two consequential amendments, 22 and 23. I have to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that if they are pushed to a vote, I would vote against them.
Amendment 24 would remove clause 16(2), which gives local authorities the power to provide for someone else to operate these charging points, and would mean, in effect, the nationalisation of this scheme. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch tabled this amendment, as it goes against what I would have thought were his normal instincts in these matters. Nevertheless, it has been tabled and we must consider it. It has a number of consequential amendments, all relating to “authorised persons”. Reference has been made to those, so, for speed of debate, I will not go through them again. The point is: if London local authorities are going to be given this power, it is entirely fair and reasonable that they should have permission to allow another authorised person, if they so wish, to do this work on their behalf and operate these charging points.
The next amendments deal with the issue of liability for these charging points, and we have heard a number of arguments tonight as to where that responsibility should lie. I can only assume that the objective of subsection (7), which would be removed if amendment 27 were accepted, is to try to absolve local authorities of responsibility. There can be no other reason for it. If they were not negligent, they would not have anything to fear; there would be no problem. I am suspicious about why the subsection is in the Bill at all and I agree entirely with amendment 27, which I would support if it were pressed to a Division later this evening.
I would also support amendment 28, which deals with the determination of liability for someone using one of these charging points. The Bill states:
“For the purposes of determining, in any proceedings in a court of civil jurisdiction, who is liable for injury, damage or loss resulting from the presence on a highway or public off-street car park of a connecting cable at or near charging apparatus provided under this section, it shall be presumed that the person in charge of the relevant vehicle at the relevant time had responsibility for and control of the cable.”
In other words, the subsection is very serious, in that it makes a presumption that a charged person accused of having committed an offence under the Bill would find it difficult to rebut. There would be a statutory presumption that they were at fault, that they had responsibility for and control of the cable and that they were responsible for any injury, damage or loss resulting from the cable being there.
As has been evident from this evening’s debate, there is some lack of clarity about exactly what a connecting cable is and whether, for example, it would be connected to the charging point or the car. I suspect that that is the root cause of the confusion. I can well understand local authorities not wanting to be liable for connecting cables that come from the car but, as I tried to point out earlier, that is not the definition in subsection (11). “Connecting cable” is specifically defined as
“any cable…whether provided by the authority or otherwise, used to connect the charging apparatus to a vehicle and that is not permanently attached to the charging apparatus”.
There is some confusion and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for drawing it to the attention of the House. I hope that his amendments go some way towards rectifying the problem.
The next amendments are all consequential on the removal of the words “authorised person”, so I will not deal with them.
Let me turn now to amendment 37, which replaces the word “consulted” in line two of clause 18 with the words “obtained the consent of”. Clearly, that is an absolutely crucial change. There is no point in merely consulting another authority, and the much more clear requirement that the consent of the other planning authorities is obtained makes much more sense. For that reason, I have no difficulty in supporting that amendment.
As we have heard, the Bill makes no provision for consulting other car park users. It has been suggested that there would be no need for such consultation, but I disagree, because car parks are often full to capacity and if certain sections of a car park are to be cordoned off for use as charging spaces, that will affect other car park users. I could well envisage many disgruntled people who are trying to park driving past a lot of empty spaces that have been kept for use only as charging bays. I fear that the problem in practice will not be people making illegal use of the electricity, which I shall deal with when I speak to amendment 40, but people parking their petrol and diesel vehicles in spaces provided for electrical charging points, yet that is not covered by the Bill. Perhaps that problem has not been thought about, but it represents a real risk, so it would be sensible at least to carry out consultation with other users.
If I had to pick only one of the many amendments in the group on which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch should test the will of the House, it would be amendment 40. The amendment is simple, given that it would remove clause 19, which will create the new offence of the unlawful use of a charging point. The clause states that anyone found guilty of that offence would be
“liable on a summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3”,
which is currently £1,000, but might shortly increase to £4,000. I accept that such a deterrent would be sufficient to put anyone off making unlawful use of a charging point, but rather than putting people off, why not encourage them to use the points? Why not say, “Here is an electric charging point, so if you want to use it, do so”? When one pays for fuel at the pump with a credit card, after putting in one’s card and entering the number, a specific amount of fuel—usually up to £99—can be drawn down. There might be a technical reason, but why could we not do the same for electricity? Why could not people enter their card and code so that electricity up to a given amount could be dispensed? That ought to be the way forward because we then would not need to create an additional offence. That explains my rationale for supporting amendment 40, leaving aside the other good arguments that we have already heard, with which I entirely concur.
There is no need to create this new offence when it would already be an offence to damage or vandalise a charging point, as that would be covered by criminal damage. In any event, there is no specific reference in clause 19, as it refers to using the apparatus
“for any purpose other than charging a vehicle”.
I can only imagine what other uses it might be put to—perhaps charging a mobile phone or other equipment, such as a computer or laptop. Who knows what the charging points will be used for. Local authorities could use them as a money-making opportunity if they thought wider than vehicles.
Those are my brief thoughts on this group of amendments. The House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for bringing the amendments before us today, not least because amendment 30 has been accepted by the promoters of the Bill. This is not the first amendment that has been accepted, so I am grateful to the promoters for having listened carefully to the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend and having paid due attention to his arguments. If I may make a closing bid, I think that of all the amendments, amendment 40 is the one that should be put to the vote. If it is, I can assure my hon. Friend of my support.
This is a notable debate for a number of reasons, but one is that we have not heard from either the Minister or the official Opposition spokesman, yet we understand that the development of a network of charging points for electric vehicles is a key policy of both the Government and the Opposition. The way of implementing such a policy in London is what we have been discussing for the past couple of hours. I find it extraordinary, if not disturbing, that we have not heard from the Minister in response to the genuine questions raised during the debate.
It is invidious to make contrasts but I am going to do so. The way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has dealt with the debate is first class. The whole purpose of scrutiny in the House is for questions to be asked and answers to be given, and for that to be done in a civilised way. It may well be that people have misunderstood the meaning of the Bill. They may have made nonsense of an amendment, but the only way of testing that process is through a civilized exchange across the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend has shown during today’s proceedings and in previous discussion of the Bill that if the Government are interested in bringing forward Ministers who are good at responding to debates, taking seriously the process of scrutiny and answering the questions, my hon. Friend is a model Minister in waiting. He has shown that he grasps the whole purpose of our Parliament, which is to scrutinise the Executive, and the purpose of the Executive is to respond to that scrutiny.
Having come in for a bit of stick tonight in relation to some of the amendments in the group, I remind the House that it is a long-standing convention that if one tables an amendment and it encounters quite a lot of opposition, one then downgrades one’s amendment by saying, “Well, after all, it is only a probing amendment.” By force of argument, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, and from my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley and for Bury North, I have been forced to downgrade my lead amendment to a probing amendment. However, it has been very effective in probing and getting out of the promoters what they have in mind and why that amendment is ill-conceived, like many of the others that go with it. Had the Minister responded, I might well have been pushed back into a more aggressive mode and become a little more stubborn.
To sum up the debate, leaving aside those amendments that were clearly probing, there is still disagreement between my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the three of us who have spoken from the Back Benches in relation to amendment 37, which relates to clause 18, and amendment 40, which relates to clause 19. He opposes amendment 37 on the basis that it would be demanding to expect local authorities to deal with potentially 25,000 planning applications, as we are talking about 25,000 charging points across London, and I conceded that that is correct.
On the other hand, I envisage enormous difficulties if the 25,000 charging points are installed in places where local residents do not want them to be. They are also a potential nuisance, because we do not yet know how much noise they will generate. Will they be as loud as a fridge freezer at night, or louder? We do not know how much of a nuisance vehicles coming to charging points will be, or how long the process will take. When there is a shortage of charging points, will there be queues of vehicles waiting to use them, and might that obstruct the streets? There are many big issues that could affect London residents.
Although clause 18 refers to consulting, it makes no reference to meaningful consultation or to local authorities having to listen to the views of residents. Without the wording being changed, all we can say is that if local authorities do not listen to the views of their residents on this, the whole means of bringing forward charging points to facilitate the expansion of electric vehicles in London will be inhibited and could become very unpopular. That is one of the concerns referred to during the debate. As I recall, clause 18 also refers to consent having to be obtained from Network Rail and London Underground, which is a result of the petitions that those organisations put in against the Bill. It is a pity that residents did not petition, as they might have been able to obtain a similar concession.
Amendment 40 would delete clause 19. If we are talking about creating new criminal offences, we need to be very clear that they are needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, in defending the Bill’s position, did his valiant best. He referred to the problem that many local authorities already have with theft from parking meters, but he did not suggest that that should be subject to a separate offence, because it is already covered by the Theft Act. He also said that he did not believe that the issue of interfering with a charging apparatus could be ignored when drafting a Bill such as this. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made clear, that would probably be an offence of criminal damage. Do we need a new criminal offence under clause 19? The wording of the clause would not even cover interference, as it specifically refers to the use of
“charging apparatus in contravention of a sign displayed”.
We do not yet know, because the technology and designs are still being developed, whether the charging apparatus will be the kind into which an electric kettle can be plugged—a person might be able to have their tea. Surely, however, it is sensible to legislate on the basis that there is already a clear offence of theft of electricity. Anybody who uses the apparatus without authority will be stealing the electricity. That is clear. If they interfere with or vandalise the charging apparatus, they will be guilty of criminal damage. There is no need for the offence in clause 19; it would just litter the statute book, and we do not want to create more criminal offences.
We then come to the additional point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, who said that clause 19(2) is badly drafted and makes it look as though we were dealing with the wrong person from whom permission would need to be obtained to establish a defence. That is a subsidiary argument against clause 19.
Having one amendment accepted is more than was achieved during the earlier business—today, yesterday and the day before yesterday, with all the might of the Opposition forces against the Government. I am grateful for small mercies. In fact, two amendments will have been accepted this evening, and that is pretty good. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East should be made a Minister; perhaps I might have a role in the official Opposition. We might be able to make more progress.
I intend to withdraw amendment 21, move amendment 30 formally so that it can be accepted by the House and test the opinion of the House on amendment 40. It would be a pity if those who have listened so attentively to this debate were deprived of the opportunity of participating in a vote before we reach the appointed time.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: 30—(Mr Chope.)
Offence of unlawful use of charging point
Amendment proposed: 40—(Mr Chope.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
More than three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings, the business was interrupted (Order, 3 September).
Bill to be read a Third time tomorrow.
Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 8 October.